Scream into a pillow. Punch a punching bag. Go ahead—let it out.
Catharsis is a Greek term for purification or cleansing—the relief of repressed emotions, especially fear or anger. Logically this makes sense: someone cuts you off, you get angry, so you speed up next to them to see what they look like. Maybe throw in a finger or two.
David McRaney, in You Are Not So Smart, shares a study done by psychologist Brad Bushman on why releasing anger with anger puts us on an emotional hamster wheel, and in turn, creates a habit that motivates us to seek that reward again and again [emphasis mine]:
“Bushman has been doing research for a while, and it keeps turning up the same results. If you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get pissed. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting. It’s druglike, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it. The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove.
Bushman’s work also debunks the idea of redirecting your anger into exercise or something similar. He says it will only maintain your state or increase your arousal level, and afterward you may be even more aggressive than if you had cooled off. Still, cooling off is not the same thing as not dealing with your anger at all. Bushman suggests you delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.
If you get into an argument, or someone cuts you off in traffic, or you get called an awful name, venting will not dissipate the negative energy. It will, however, feel great. That’s the thing. Catharsis will make you feel good, but it’s an emotional hamster wheel. The emotion that led you to catharsis will still be there afterward, and if the catharsis made you feel good, you’ll seek that emotion out again in the future.”
What this reflects is simply the irrationality of human behavior.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has done some unorthodox and fascinating studies on the multitude of ways that we are not only irrational, but predictably irrational—our irrationality happens the same way again and again.
He conducted a study with his students at MIT and was interested in how we make decisions when we’re sexually aroused. Students had to answer 19 questions on sexual preferences. They were considered to be in a “cold” state when answering these questions—rational, superego-driven. Questions like, Would you have sex without a condom? Would you be attracted to a 50-year-old woman? Could having sex with someone you hated be enjoyable? When we answer these in a “cold” state, we easily abide to our personal and cultural morals.
But what happens when we enter a “hot” state, when our moral compass starts spinning? Ariely says [emphasis mine]:
“In the set of sessions conducted when they were in a hot, aroused state, they also predicted their decisions—but this time, since they were actually in the grip of passion, they were presumably more aware of their preferences in that state.
In every case, our bright young participants answered the questions very differently when they were aroused from when they were in a “cold” state. Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when Roy and all the other participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high as (72 percent higher than) they had predicted when they were cold.
Across the board, they revealed in their unaroused state that they themselves did not know what they were like once aroused. Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen. They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.”
Our pivot from hot to cold switches like a flip. When we make emotionally charged decisions, we’re usually focused on short-term rewards rather than a long-term focus—which is why walking away from an argument or taking your “anger off the stove” proves to be exceedingly difficult.
What’s even more surprising is that, in the context of sexual arousal, more experience doesn’t entail smarter choices. I think the same applies to when we’re angry.
Simply put, we don’t get better with experience. As Ariely concludes [emphasis mine]:
“Our experiment at Berkley revealed not just the old story that we are all like Jekyll and Hyde, but also something new—that everyone one of us, regardless of how ‘good’ we are, underpredicts the effect of passion on our behavior. In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was. Moreover, it is not just that people make wrong predictions about themselves—their predictions are wrong by a large margin.
Moreover, this study suggested that our inability to understand ourselves in a different emotional state does not seem to improve with experience; we get it wrong even if we spend as much time in this state as our Berkley students spend sexually aroused. Sexual arousal is familiar, personal, very human, and utterly commonplace. Even so, we all systematically underpredict the degree to which arousal completely negates our superego, and the way emotions can take control of our behavior.”
When we’re angry, we use language like, “I don’t know what got into me. I just snapped.” It’s as if a dark entity entered our bodies and controlled our behavior. When we cool off, we reflect back on how we behaved and are often shocked by it. “Jeez, I’m an animal when I get like that.” Don’t worry, we all are.
Turning off the stove before we reach the boiling point takes a serious level of self-awareness and practical wisdom—both equally difficult to practice and foster. Look at how often anger can be a part of our lives, and look at how poorly we react when we face something that we faced multiple times, i.e., bad drivers, harsh feedback, or criticism. We are shocked as if it’s happening for the first time.
To simply get better at dealing with anger, we need to keep in mind that anger begets more anger. It’s quite possible that before reading this post, you thought venting and punching bags was a smart way of dealing with anger (*raises hand*).
If you’re angry and you think throwing weights or punching a bag is helpful, try to understand how the behavior—the very movements that are influenced by the emotions you’re trying to purge—feeds back into the source. It feels good to vent this way, but what if weights or a punching bag aren’t around? What will you punch or throw then? Like McRaney said, it puts us on an emotional hamster wheel. It’s drug-like. It’s science.
A better habit to build is to learn to identify what you’re telling yourself when someone insults you or cuts you off. By becoming aware of your perception, the story you tell yourself—”Hey, this guy just said my article sucks and I’m really offended by it and I have to respond because, you know, human nature and self-esteem and ego”—perhaps it’s a necessary first step to stop repeating fruitless behavior. While the more desirable solutions like punching a punching bag is out of the question, perhaps walking away and cooler down is all we’re left with. Perhaps we can try.